One of America's first black entertainment moguls, Leon Claxton helped spread Black and Latin music and dance to mainstream audiences during the era of Jim Crow.
A star-maker who innovated musical theatre, Claxton built a road show empire that would go on to influence the world of television, musical theatre and nightclub shows.
Leon Claxton reached the apex of his career with the triumph of Harlem in Havana, and he went onto enjoy a good deal of wealth and social distinction, despite the odds against him as a self-made, black entrepreneur.
The early years growing up on Beale Street
Leon Claxton was born in April 1902 to Overton (O.C.) and Maggie Claxton, members of a renowned Memphis family. Leon’s mother was an educator and his father was the talented drummer best known as the musician who brought the father of the Blues, W.C. Handy, from Clarksdale to Memphis to start a band in 1909.
Alongside Handy, O.C. Claxton, led the way in the rise of Blues music in Memphis where it was birthed in the cotton fields, migrated into the streets and clubs, and influenced music all over the world.
By the age of 16, Leon was being featured in his own contortions act.
Taking Chicago by Storm
The Claxtons joined The Great Migration out of the Jim Crow South and moved to Chicago’s South side where blacks were thriving, music was flourishing and the Chicago Black Renaissance movement was growing. O.C. Claxton brought his own style of blues music up from the South and helped to create Chicago’s unique jazz sound.
The Claxton home, 3845 South State Street, Apt D, was a well-known flophouse for black musicians traveling through Chicago to find work, and the perfect place for Claxton to cultivate his craft in the art of contortions.
After just a few years in the windy city, Leon was taking audiences by storm, performing acrobats and acting as a straight man in comedy duos with outfits like Keith and Western Shows, Pantages Circuit, and Melville-Reiss Shows "Get Happy” all-colored revue.
In the early 1930s, Leon Claxton started producing his own sepia revues, or race shows, featuring the many street artists, musicians, dancers and choreographers who took refuge at 3845 South State St where signs outside advertised "daily open houses".
The new crazy cool colored troupe known as “Leon Claxton’s merry mad gang of vaudevillians” was an instant success being booked at nightclubs across Chicago, including Glickman’s Palace, Little Palace Theatre, Indiana Theater and the Blue Island.
Within a few years, Leon (affectionately known then as "Claxton") had developed an untouchable reputation in the production of quality shows. Here and There, by Chicago Defender columnist Bob Hayes read, “In true keeping with his illustrious patron, the late Flo Ziegfeld, Leon Claxton has gone into the beauty business...” when Claxton’s production of a city-wide all-colored beauty contest ran for weeks in conjunction with his midnight stage show and gained national attention for being one of the first ventures of its kind.
Patronized by many big names in entertainment, including Ziegfeld himself, Claxton’s high quality “flesh” shows were dubbed by the press as the “must see” spectacle season after season.
In 1933, the producers of the Chicago World's Fair selected Claxton to produce an all-colored musical revue on the midway. Claxton produced "The Cotton Club Showboat Revue’, a colored rendition of Ziegfeld’s "Showboat" featuring nearly one hundred African American performers in an elaborate production that stood out amongst the other ‘darky’ shows at the fair.
Carnival king Carl J. Sedlmayr happened to be in the audience and was so amazed at the high caliber production, he sought after Claxton for weeks to manage his failing minstrel attraction on Royal American Shows, the largest traveling carnival company in America at the time.
|Brown Skin Vanities Revue, 1936|
Brown Skin Vanities Revue
Leon Claxton’s Brown Skin Vanities Revue opened on Royal American Shows in 1935 and rocked the world’s largest midway with popular Harlem numbers by Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. The first year, Claxton’s show broke industry records for audience size and revue, making 1935 Royal American Shows best season yet.
Still, Sedlmayr was disillusioned about the long-term potential of a colored revue and decided to sell the minstrel sideshow setup. Claxton quickly borrowed $900 from RAS Business Manager Elmer Velare who saw the show’s potential. Claxton bought and nurtured the attraction into the first venture of its kind in North America.
In 1936, Claxton’s revue held a record-breaking 28 performances in one day for Canadian fairgoers, an undisputed record in U.S. carnival history. By the end of the season, the U.S. and International press couldn’t stop raving about Leon Claxton’s Brown Skin Vanities Revue.
Claxton changed his show's name several times in the early years. Monikers included the Cotton Club Showboat Revue, The Hipp Cats, and Cuban Rum Boogie. The name HARLEM IN HAVANA would replace Cuban Rum Boogie in 1946, and remain the same for the next 15 years. But everything would change in 1959.
|Harlem in Havana, 1949|
|View the Harlem in Havana Collector's Edition|
Part of a new cool culture of celebrities, Claxton was a jet-set, millionaire showman with extravagant tastes and celebrity friends. Everyone wanted to be a part of Claxton’s extravagant world filled with money, exotic women and international travel.
|Gwendolyn and Leon Claxton, 1940s|
Gwen had everything a girl could dream of, including the finest dresses, expensive jewelry and fur coats.
|Gwendolyn Bates Claxton|
|Leon Claxton and boxer Joe Louis|
|The Claxton home at 1901 Grace Drive in Tampa, Florida|
|Leon and Gwen Claxton (Far right)|
Nobility and Philanthropy
Leon Claxton not only achieved phenomenal success onstage, but in the Tampa business community and civic society.
A distinguished noble of Tampa's Harram Temple No. 23, Claxton was tireless in helping to raise funds for underprivileged children and outdoor showmen leagues, including The Greater Tampa Showmen’s Association, the International Showmen’s League and the Miami Showmen’s League.
Claxton also created his own charitable organizations in order to further serve needy children. His Underprivileged Children’s Fund of St. Louis and the Big Buddies Fund, an annual Tampa fundraiser created to promote Christmas cheer to underprivileged colored children of the Greater Tampa area, raised thousands of dollars for needy children annually.
|Leon Claxton was a noble of Tampa's Harram Temple No. 23|
|Claxton receives the Tampa Citizen of the Year Award in 1955|
In 1965, Leon Claxton built the Claxton Manor Motel, a popular vacation spot in Tampa, Florida which catered to all races, one year after Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, called for by President John F. Kennedy "giving all Americans the right to be served in facilities which are open to the public—hotels, restaurants, theaters, retail stores, and similar establishments".
|The Claxton Manor|
Road show empire
Beloved by all who knew him and his work, Leon Claxton passed away in November 1967.
His personal desire to learn all aspects of the circus, vaudeville productions and his carnival businesses were essential to his creation of what would become a road show empire.
It is remarkable that Claxton may have been illiterate. Certainly, he received no formal education. He possessed, however, a shrewd ability to compensate for these deficiencies in his business and personal dealings.
More than anything, Leon Claxton possessed the energetic ambition of the entrepreneur showman and never lost hope that his dream could one day become a reality.
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